A non-ugly American in Somaliland: Jonathan Starr’s Abaarso school

Bad news abounds. Even efforts to improve the world often do the opposite — that’s the history of foreign aid and development initiatives. “Ugly American” overseas misadventures are legion.

In 1991, Somalia imploded, becoming the textbook “failed state.” But an isolated backwater area broke away, declaring independence as the Republic of Somaliland. It’s not an internationally recognized country, and no halcyon place. But at least (by local standards) relatively stable, peaceful, and even democratic.

Enter Jonathan Starr. Having made some bucks in finance, at 32 he wanted a better life mission. So in 2009 this American went to Somaliland to start a school.

Lousy education is a key factor impeding progress throughout Africa. Even where kids do attend school, teachers often don’t, they’re ill-equipped anyway, and lessons emphasize rote memorization, so little is really learned. Starr’s aim was to create not just a good school but a great one. With high academic standards, nurturing and character building, preparing students to go on to the world’s top universities, and come back to become Somaliland’s leaders.

Was he nuts? Many would have said so. I’d actually entertained African school fantasies myself — until realism dissuaded me. Starr was indeed extremely naive thinking he’d just walk into such a hardscrabble country and do this. It broke all the rules. He had no relevant expertise; didn’t even speak Somali.

Abaarso School

The story is told in his 2016 book, It Takes a School. It actually got built, and Starr got some Americans to come teach there (in English). Along the way, some big mistakes were made, and numerous setbacks and nail-biting crises occurred. The book is candid about this. One section is titled, “The Great Miscalculation.” (A later chapter: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”)

For one thing, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was named for the locale — Starr didn’t realize “Abaarso” means “drought.” So water was an unforeseen problem. Then a local mover-and-shaker he teamed up with, named Khadar, turned into the partner from hell, exploiting his government and clan connections trying to take over the whole project himself. He even planted fake news stories accusing the school of anti-Islamic activities, and tried to get Starr thrown out of the country.

Starr realized he was up against the way things too often work in Africa — or, more accurately, don’t work, stymying progress. But by now he was far along the learning curve, and had built a network of local relationships enabling him to defeat Khadar’s efforts. Starr got the Somaliland government, finally, squarely in his own corner. A blue-ribbon Muslim religious council was summoned to give the school a stamp of approval. And it helped that Abaarso started showing spectacular results: graduates accepted, with scholarships, to leading U.S. universities. That was something unheard of in Somaliland, where those kids became national heroes.

Mubarik

One was Mubarik, a former nomad goat-herder; the first time he saw a truck he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik has now graduated from MIT.

We met Jonathan Starr at the Ingersoll event I wrote about; only because my wife happened to notice “Worcester MA” (where she went to college) on his mother’s name tag. That led to seating ourselves beside them at the dinner, and hearing a little of his story. Which also led to our spending some time with three female Abaarso alums, one of them starting at the nearby Emma Willard School. You couldn’t find more impressive, admirable young women. They rhapsodized about how Abaarso, and its founder, changed their lives.

Unlike many American kids who take for granted what they’re given, these Somalilanders realize they’re escaping what would otherwise be a life without hope (that’s led so many Africans into rickety boats), and they behave accordingly. The Emma Willard gal literally kissed the steps upon arrival. No slackers, these kids work very hard to make the most of their precious opportunities.

Cynics and pessimists always see problems as intractable. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s sometimes true. But Starr was not deterred; was naive enough to make the effort, despite all the obvious handicaps he started with. This is a tremendous lesson for positive thinking. We humans have huge abilities to accomplish things — and often making the effort is the key. As the old line goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Starr, in a speech, said that once he’d started, failure just wasn’t an option. (I was reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”)

I also think about America’s own failing schools. Indeed, it’s been shown again and again that even in the worst circumstances, students can succeed in schools having positive-thinking leadership. No circumstances could be worse than what Starr faced in Somaliland. If his school could succeed there, ours can here.

Starr hasn’t stopped with Abaarso. His “Horn of Africa Education Development Fund” has started a second school, a teachers’ college for girls. The plan is for those girls to teach in a network of dozens of good K-12 schools, to be run by Abaarso grads; the first of those is slated to open in 2019. It would not be hyperbole to say the overall project bodes well to ultimately transform the country.

Click here to donate (I have made a significant contribution).

Starr and Abaarso have been profiled on 60 Minutes. Anderson Cooper ended the report by noting that Trump’s Muslim travel ban applies to Somaliland, making it harder for Abaarso grads to seek higher education in the U.S. So far, they’re still managing to get student visas. But staying after their education is another matter. A great self-inflicted loss for America.

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